by Joseph J. Fahey
Catholic Social Teaching (CST) states that labor unions “are a positive influence for social order and solidarity, and are therefore an indispensible element of social life.” CST further teaches that “unions have the duty of acting as representatives working for ‘the proper arrangement of economic life’” and must play an active role “in the whole task of economic and social development and in the attainment of the universal common good.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 305, 307, emphasis in original) Contrary to those who hold that unions are a relic of the industrial past, CST states that today “solidarity among workers [is] more fitting and necessary than ever” and that unions are appropriate “for all professions."
Catholic Social Teaching’s extraordinary support for labor unions and the essential role unions play in securing the common good is the rock upon which Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice is founded.
Although we are a new organization, our message is as old as the Hebrew prophets and the teaching of Jesus who proclaimed, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 26:40) Tragically, workers and their families are often the least -- and the last -- to benefit from economic and social systems that are based on greed and power. Fortunately, there is a long Catholic tradition (that predates Rerum Novarum in 1891) that holds that workers are entitled to a just wage and that the work they perform must not demean human dignity. For many centuries, the Church condemned the practice of usury that provided great profits for people who used other peoples’ money to get rich through excessive interest on loans. In the medieval period the Church supported organized labor through the guild system. Hence, when Pope Leo revived the Church’s teaching on the proper role of a just economy and on workers’ rights to freely associate through labor unions those who profited from worker exploitation shouted long and loud that “the Church ought to stick with religion and stay out of economics.” The real trouble is, of course, that these good folks have for too long themselves stuck with economics and stayed out of religion.
THE CURRENT ECONOMIC CRISIS
As these words are being written the economic crisis that began in the US in September, 2008 has now spread to markets around the world. The U.S. Congress has passed an $820 billion bailout bill for Wall Street economic institutions because of the reckless business practices that have resulted from decades of excess and deregulation. Speculators play with money that is not their own and for which they haven’t done five minutes of work. Loans are given to people who can’t remotely afford to pay them back with the promise, “Don’t worry, your house will be worth another $100,000 next year and if you can’t repay your loan you can always sell for a profit or refinance when interest rates go down.”
Usury, long considered a vice in Catholic teaching, is promoted in the capitalist world as the essence of the good life. (“Greed is good.”) Above all, many capitalists bemoan government regulation of free enterprise – the 2008 Republican platform even includes a plank on this. And so Republicans and Democrats alike believe that government must intervene to save a system that has fallen off a cliff. This leaves organized labor in a terrible bind. Workers are asked to endorse a strategy that will save Wall Street in order to save jobs for Americans. First rescue those on top, the theory goes, so you can help those on the bottom. The system workers are being asked to rescue, however, is the very system that has fought labor tooth and nail since its inception. Workers and their families are – in essence – being asked to bail out the system that has violated their rights and insulted their dignity through all these years. The American taxpayer (translation: worker) is being told that “if you don’t help the system immediately it will collapse.”
SUBSIDARITY AND SOLIDARITY
The notion that one group should help another in time of need is a cardinal principle of Catholic Social Teaching. It is called the “principle of subsidiarity.” Subsidarity is rooted in the Latin word subsidium which means help or assistance. Subsidarity can never be discussed separately from another core Catholic teaching: solidarity. Subsidarity and solidarity must be understood in the context of the Catholic teaching on “the universal destination of goods.” Taken together these principles constitute the Church’s teaching on the common good.
Assistance to those in need is a moral obligation incumbent on all because of the unity of humankind and the common ownership of the gifts of creation.
It is important to recall that Blessed Pope John stated in Pacem in Terris (140) that the principle of subsidarity can go up as well as down. That is, subsidarity is really an “effective government” principle – if a smaller unit or intermediate association can solve a problem fine, but if it must be solved by resort to a larger unit that is fine also. The point of subsidarity and solidarity is to help those in need with whatever level of human organization or government that can best do the job. (Pope John uses the principle of subsidarity, by the way, to argue for a “world-wide public authority” that would promote the universal common good. More on that in the future.)
Consequently, citizen assistance through the federal government to any person, group, village, state, or business enterprise falls within the Catholic principle of subsidarity assuming that no other level of civil society or government can solve the problem. Indeed, the current economic crisis will very likely demand an international solution to problems that cannot be solved by individual nations alone.
THE UNIVERSAL COMMON GOOD
Catholic thought asks the fundamental question, however, of whether the subsidium that is sought by any group serves the “universal common good” rather than the isolated or selfish interest of a small segment of society. Hence, the common good is the litmus test for any assistance that is provided to any person, group, or business. Certainly one of the long-term benefits to society that must be served by American workers’ assistance to Wall Street is proper regulation of economic activity not only to avoid vice but also to promote the virtue of the common good. Perhaps this will be the beginning of a transformation of our economy that will lead to a society where, in the words of the Bishops of the United States in 1986, “The Dignity of the human person, realized in community with others, is the criterion against which all aspects of economic life must be measured.” (Economic Justice for All, 28, emphasis in original)
The country will survive this crisis just as it has survived the many crises that Wall Street visits upon the American people every few years. Once again, workers will lose their jobs, their homes, health care, and once happy marriages will end. Clearly, we need a systemic change in the way our economy operates. Catholic Social Doctrine on the economy, on work, and on the rightful place of workers’ associations in the social order provides a much needed perspective on a system that is broken because it fails to make the common good its guiding principle. We know that great Catholic scholars like John A. Ryan and George Higgins and the “labor priests” of old faced similar crises and they offered the rich heritage of Catholic teaching to a world that sorely needed it. Because of the efforts of Catholic leaders and scholars – and the efforts of many fine people of all faiths – the landmark National Labor Relations Act became the law of the land in 1935. Because of the NLRA and union organizing a robust middle class emerged in the United States. Because labor law is now frequently used against workers and because unions represent far fewer workers than in their heyday, we are witnessing the dismantling of the middle class in the United States. This was a work in progress long before the current crisis.
THE EMPLOYEE FREE CHOICE ACT
The very first act of Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice was to give its strong support for the pending legislation on the Employee Free Choice Act. This legislation is, we believe, strongly rooted in Catholic teaching that holds that unions are “indispensible” for the common good. In 2007 a lead editorial in America stated that: “The Employee Free Choice Act is the most important piece of labor legislation in the past 72 years. Both the spirit and the letter of this act strongly resonate with Catholic social teaching, from Rerum Novarum through Laborem Exercens. It deserves to be made the law of the land.” (“Restoring Worker Choice,” Aug. 27 – Sept. 3, 2007, 5) Any bailout or reform that does not include EFCA will only revive an economic system that will fall back into its old ways and in a few years return once again, hat in hand, to ask the American worker to assume its gambling losses.
Faithful to Catholic teaching, the Employee Free Choice Act will place the working woman and man at the core of an economic revival that serves and promotes the universal common good.
Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand and I shall move the earth.” Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice stands with Catholic Social Doctrine in our effort to shape the kind of society which promotes the common good of all. To do this we will engage in contemplation and action. We will think, pray, and reflect on the rich heritage that is Catholic social teaching and we intend to contribute to that tradition through our research and scholarship. And we will be active. We will support workers in their quest for union membership and we will commend employers who recognize the essential role that unions play in civil society.
Above all, we intend to “move the earth” through our faithfulness to the vocation given to all Catholics by the 1971 World Synod of Bishops: “Action on behalf of justice and participation of the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.” (Justice in the World, Introduction)
October 8, 2008
Joe Fahey, Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College in New York City, is Chair of the Steering Committee of Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.